Comment: Self sufficiency prospects must change

Farmer and NFU president Meurig Raymond.  Pic: Adam Fradgley.
Farmer and NFU president Meurig Raymond. Pic: Adam Fradgley.
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THE PAST ten years have been challenging for our farming industry. Set amid a backdrop of a major recession and austerity cuts, it’s true to say our industry has been more resilient than most.

There have been difficult times; our dairy industry, besieged by cuts which have devalued a world-class product, to the scourge of bovine TB leaving a devastating impact on many farming families. But it’s not all been bad news.

We’ve seen the industry embrace new technology, advances in animal welfare, an increased take up of on-farm renewable energy and better resource management on-farm.

The main challenge we face is volatility. You may have heard this word used a lot in recent months, but the fact is we do face enormous pressures from an increasingly global marketplace; not to mention the devastation that can be felt from extreme weather conditions.

That’s why the NFU is urging all political parties to put farming at the heart of their manifestos heading into the General Election, so we can better mitigate external influences – and encourage our industry to grow and thrive.

We predict food production will fall to 53 per cent of the food needed in the UK in 25 years’ time. We’ll have to rely on imports for nearly half the food needed to feed the nation – a dismal prospect that needs to change. In the wider global context there is more reason to care about our declining self-sufficiency.

By value, Europe’s agricultural trade accounts for 9.8 per cent of exports and 9.7 per cent of imports. Trade on this scale carries a significant external environmental footprint.

We could address our ‘food footprint’ by increasing food production in the UK and Europe. Investing in resource efficient and resilient food production would have an important role to play in limiting this external footprint. But there are reasons why this has happened: UK farm input failing to increase with a rise in population; European policy favouring environmental rather than production outcomes; declining investment in research and development, and application on farm; failure to deal with animal disease; access to labour; and more.

Farming contributes £9.4bn to the UK economy; and on top of this it provides 3.5m jobs. We need the right signals from the new Government to continue in this vain. We want them to lead with a review of CAP greening and a comprehensive Agri-Food strategy to grow UK food production and halt this long-term decline in UK self-sufficiency.

In the meantime, our industry continues to explore new avenues in becoming more efficient. But crucially, the vast majority of farms are still family owned and run businesses and I believe that is unlikely to change in the future and that the future of British farming has room for business enterprises both big and small.

British farming must and will change and adapt to the challenges and opportunities of the future. Domestic and global demand for food and renewable energy is on the rise. Almost three-quarters of the public want to halt the nation’s declining self-sufficiency.

Farmers are ready too, with the potential to grow production and reduce our reliance on imported produce, so I can’t stress enough that we need the Government’s support and we need whoever ends up at Number 10 to Back British Farming.

Meurig Raymond is president of the National Farmers’ Union.